2nd Sunday before Advent
Zephaniah 1, 7 12-end 1 Thessalonians 5, 1-11 Matthew 25, 14-end
Hymns: Be thou my vision: When I needed a neighbour: Breathe on me: Guide me O thou…
Well, we have that parable of the Talents – one talent being fifteen years’ income – which, as commonly read, either doesn’t make much sense or, if it does, seems unpleasant! The ineffectual third guy, the runt of the trio, beaten up for being too scared to risk making money for his demanding master? On the face of it, neither kind nor Christian!
It’s a problem parable for which we can gather hints from the first two readings. Amid Zephaniah’s lurid punishments, it’s easy to miss what such wrath and indignation is about: not the sins of commission covered by the Commandments, but that indifference which, like apathy or silence, separates person from person and all from God. I’m reminded of a young Baptist woman in Myanmar whom I was teaching some in 2009. The course didn’t begin as ‘the moral implications of silence,’ which became the theme. She wrote:
‘We now understand that silence feeds power and allows power. That shocked us. Culture, the military, the church hierarchy; they silence us, and we are angry. But we do the same: we preach and teach on peace and justice as if other people should make it happen. We must stop being silent, for that is active and colludes with power. And if we are silent (about domestic violence) we support making a difference between God’s children, and that is sin.’ Silence can be golden, but also sinful, and apathy and indifference are not neutral.
Paul wrote to his friends and followers in his first mission-city, Thessaloniki, as people of the daylight, lively and alert, living in faith, and ‘wearing the helmet of faith and love and the breastplate of hope.’ Attacking others ostensibly ‘for the faith’ but usually for power is common enough in Christian history and currently the approach of the so-called Islamic State fighters, who clearly do not know that jihad is not primarily about fighting the other but, as detailed in our first hymn, of struggling with our inner self. Paul sees each believer as armed with a protective garment enfolding each in God’s loving care, ready to build up the other in their community.
See our third man now? Someone who didn’t trust God in Christ – which is what Matthew makes of the absent owner. Someone who, even if not as smart as the others, lacked their trust and confidence to use his wits to risk living, but preferred burying the money immediately to avoid legal responsibility if it was stolen. It thus seems reasonable to say that he was penalised for living in fear not trust, fear not hope, fear not self-respect.
Now you may say, ‘But living in the fear of the Lord is right according to the Hebrew Bible and how I’ve been taught, so if the third man was fearful of his master, whether God or not, near-inaction was a reasonable response.’ Yet the man’s defence does not sound one of a scared person, but one fighting back and defending his fear and apparent apathy! Fear is an interesting word. Take its use in 1 Peter 3 verse 6, when Peter, in explaining the duties of wives, writes of the virtuous Sara’s attitude to her husband Abraham, ‘and she called him Lord,’ in 1 Peter 3:6. Though usually omitted when using it to exemplify women’s submission, it continues: ‘Yet you (all women) are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear,’ meaning not ‘being afraid of the night’, but rather ‘not letting yourself be intimidated, not being afraid of anyone.’ Women and men who are enfolded in the protecting garment of God, do not need to live in fear: I add ‘men’ to this not because they are different from and less fearful than women, but because being covered by the cloth or garment of protection is what a husband does to the wife at marriage, as Boas did to Ruth – with her help! All are covered by the cloth of God, the true ‘Cloth of Gold.’
So does this parable begin to make more sense, even though it may still seem a bit tough on the wimp? It’s because he/we didn’t trust God, because he didn’t use what reason and initiative he had – and he clearly had enough to bury the stuff- and kept on arguing. ‘From he that hath little shall be taken all’ is not mandating what shall happen to the poor- albeit descriptive of what is happening in the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor – but is rather describing one outcome of revelling in self-satisfied apathy and indifference.
This Sunday and next are closely linked, for the traditional collect for the last Sunday in Advent started ‘Stir up thy people, O Lord,’ the prompt for good housewives or servants to prepare and stir the Christmas pudding, or start assembling ingredients for plaetzchen. All three readings make clear that as we near the end of this church year, we must stir ourselves to live in faith, love and hope, actively working with God and using the gifts each is given for the benefit of our neighbour, who is all, whether in this building or beyond, and our own self.
If you hear a note of urgency, neither Zephaniah’s doom nor even the ‘people of the night’ image of Paul is in the forefront of my mind. Rather that apathy, the urge for self-protection without trust in God or of God’s gifts to us, is wrong: living in self-abnegation is wrong; living with no care to build up this or any other community of which we are part, whether family, work or other, is wrong. Apathy, indifference, defensive self-adulation and validation (for that third guy thought himself pretty good) is not neutral: it’s wrong.
There’s not much time left quietly to assess whether we have used this long learning period of Trinity Sundays as a growing period, regularly discerning and pulling the weeds, or if the green is rather mottled! Yet as we live there is time to weed, as long as we can be bothered to set to and make the effort!
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping, November 16th, Heidelberg,